A multi-agency effort rescued one hunter down from a tree in what was a very unusual — and dangerous — situation.
Edward Voelker, of Prineville, is still alive, according to Umatilla County Sgt. Dwight Johnson, who also serves as sergeant for the county’s Search and Rescue group.
Voelker was found dangling 20-30 feet in a tree north of Highway 244 on Tuesday morning after he had fallen from his tree stand two days earlier. He had become so tangled in his safety harness he was unable to get down.
Voelker, who is approximately 70 years old, was found by Steve Royston, of Salem, and his son Joseph, of Stayton, who were hunting in the area.
“We didn’t stumble on him — he was hollering out,” said Steve Royston. “We were hunting about a mile or so from his location and I heard someone yelling. I knew we needed to do something.”
It took Royston and his son about an hour and a half to pinpoint Voelker’s location. Since Voelker’s yelling was echoing throughout the forest, Royston and his son drove around in their vehicle so they could cover more ground.
“My son honked the horn, and we knew we were getting closer to him (because) once he heard the horn he started yelling louder. He kept it up so we could find him.”
It took the hunters some time to find the man since they were looking at ground level.
“He said, ‘I’m up in the tree,’” Royston recalled. “Holy smokes. He was about 30 feet above and tangled in the ropes from his tree stand. His head was straight down, (and he had) no way to get himself down. We knew we needed to get him help right then.”
Royston said he and his son had to leave Voelker to find cellphone reception. They came upon a vehicle and flagged it down and asked the driver to stay with Voelker to make sure he was OK.
“(The driver) went into the woods to sit with (Voelker) and talked to him so he wasn’t alone,” Royston said.
He estimated they had to drive about eight miles down the road to get cell coverage so they could call 911. Due to the proximity of cellphone towers, the call routed itself to the Union County dispatch center, instead of Umatilla County. The dispatchers asked Royston to wait by the highway and flag down first responders when they arrived.
Royston said about 20 minutes later, LifeFlight arrived. They were able to lead the helicopter to the approximate location where Voelker was, but the helicopter crew didn’t have the right equipment to get him down.
Then the calvary showed up.
“About 30 people or so (came to the scene),” Royston said. “It was just awesome.”
La Grande Fire Department, Union County Search and Rescue, Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office, Oregon Trail Electric Co-Op and the U.S. Forest Service all came together to help save Voelker.
Nick Vora, a lieutenant for the Union County Search and Rescue, said he arrived on the scene moments after the LGFD.
“At that point, we were thinking about what we were going to do to get him down,” Vora said. “We needed to get up to the guy and didn’t have the resources to do that.”
Vora said that problem was solved by the creative thinking of the LGFD.
LGFD Capt. Robert Tibbetts and LGFD EMT Jerid Ployhar were responding when Ployhar made a comment about calling OTEC to the scene.
“Jerid lives down from OTEC and he said he has seen them training for that type of rescue — for when linemen need saving from power poles,” Tibbetts said. “The information we were given (by dispatch) was that we could drive right up to the patient. Knowing he was 25 feet in the air, it was a good fit to call OTEC.”
Tibbetts said as far as he knew, that was the first time the fire department had requested OTEC’s bucket truck in a rescue mission.
“I wasn’t certain they were going to play ball,” Tibbetts said. “Not because they aren’t helpful, but because it was such an unusual request. It was rolling the dice.”
OTEC La Grande District Superintendent Matt Haggerty said, “We are always willing to help out in the community, and it’s rare to hear from first responders. We immediately deployed a truck and got there as quickly as possible.”
Before the electric company arrived on scene, Umatilla SAR Sgt. Johnson called the Forest Service, which provided two certified tree climbers with the necessary equipment.
“(We) set up a rope system from the ground and had the Forest Service tree climber set an anchor for a pulley system above the patient,” Vora said. “While that was going on, the fire department medics were (preparing) treatment for the medical complications of being upside down for a period of time.”
Tibbetts said that being upside down for an extended length of time can lead to poor circulation and a multitude of issues for the body once it’s upright.
“We knew the likelihood of cardiac arrest is extraordinarily high. We knew we couldn’t barge in and put him in the (bucket) truck without doing treatment first,” Tibbetts said. “We were forced to slow it down a bit and deal with the medical side of it while developing a plan for the actual rescue.”
Meanwhile, the Pendleton Fire Department arrived on scene with an extension ladder, which LGFD used to get to Voelker and begin administering treatment, Tibbetts said.
Vora said it was incredibly lucky OTEC was able to drive right up to the patient.
Haggerty said the OTEC linemen are trained every year in rescues very similar to the kind Voelker required.
“The guys are very qualified and do that on a yearly basis. We usually practice on a dummy, though,” he said.
Tibbetts added it was also lucky Voelker had not been able to untangle himself. The medical issues caused by being upside down can be life threatening if not treated immediately.
“We had to talk (Voelker) through that fact,” Tibbets said. “We couldn’t just set him right. We had to do some medical treatment before we did.”
Vora said once the bucket was in place, and the LGFD medics on the ladder were underneath the patient, they put him in a harness specifically designed for people who are in a “precarious situation” and cannot otherwise step into a harness themselves. They tied him in the rope system set up by the Forest Service climbers and began lowering him down.
“After being stationed so long like that, (Voelker’s) condition started to deteriorate,” Vora said. “We needed to get him to the ground immediately. We had to do CPR on him, and fortunately it didn’t take too long before he regained a pulse.”
The responders were able to load him into the helicopter and he was flown to the Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland, Washington.
Jeanette Jacoby, a family friend of Voelker’s, told the East Oregonian via email that he is now in a drug-induced coma, and doctors did a procedure on Wednesday to relieve pressure on his brain. She said he was breathing on his own for a while, but on Thursday, doctors put him back on a ventilator.
The Umatilla SAR sergeant said all of the agencies were working together when he arrived on scene, and “it was really cool to see” the professionals working as a team to try to save a life.
“There were a lot of other agencies (at the scene) that we don’t often work with, but I was impressed by how smoothly everything went. There was no single person who deserves praise. Everyone worked together. It was an unusual situation (and) everyone went above and beyond. It was a job very well done.”